Can you believe that you’ve been working from home since March? That’s right – it's been almost six months since the COVID-19 shutdown sent millions of workers out of their office buildings and into uncharted WFH territory. Congratulations on making it this far, and for embracing the change. Even if you’ve become a work-from-home ninja these past few months, there are still probably some ways to find greater focus and eliminate the inevitable distractions that crop up. Here goes with a few trusty techniques...
1) Limit Email Checking
As tempting as it might be to try and get to the magical “zero inbox” and as many blog posts as there are on how to do so, you might want to reconsider whether a lengthy daily clear out is even worth it. Sure, take care of those essential emails – your boss checking in on that big project or your siblings sorting out your mom’s birthday gift – right away, but leave all the rest for later. You might also consider unsubscribing from promotional emails that clog up your inbox and waste your time. The clever folks who created the Basecamp project management tool make it easy to do this in their new HEY email tool. It also simplifies separating essential communications from spammy ones and might even make you feel like the Roman emperor of your home office with a unique thumbs up/thumbs down function.
Also try limiting the number of times you check email each day. The boffins at the University of California at Irvine conducted a study on focus and found that every time you interrupt an important task with a trivial one, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track. According to the Harvard Business Review, the typical American adult checks their email 15 times a day. Multiply that by the UC Irvine number and you get a lot of potential productivity dribbling down the drain. Stop the leak by scheduling email check-ins three or four times a day and keeping your inbox closed the rest of the time. And for the love of all things holy, stop your wearable and portable devices from alerting you whenever a new message comes in.
2) Upgrade Your Headphones
As much fun as your neighbors seem to be having with their dogs (honestly, are these people even working?), the incessant noise is going to do nothing for you but torpedo your productivity. Sure, those old creaky cans you put on your head every morning have served you well, but you and your favorite playlists deserve better. So rather than sticking yet another piece of electrical tape over the fraying cord, consider updating to a newer pair that sound better and, with those noisy neighbors in mind, block out more intrusive, concentration-breaking sounds.
All the cool kids seem to be embracing Bluetooth buds. OK, the masses have made AirPods almost ubiquitous, but if you’re the kind of non-conformist who likes to zig when everyone else zags, there are some other solid options out there. Many frequent fliers still swear by Bose, with the flagship QuietComfort 35 II providing the company’s trademark noise cancellation and call clarity. But in recent times, Sony has been going punch for punch with the champ and recently released the updated WH-1000XM4, which boasts even better sound than its predecessor and 30 hours battery life.
As far as wireless headphones have come in the past few years, their old wired counterparts still arguably sound better and remove the annoyance of your battery conking out at the most inconvenient time possible. If you prefer an over-the-ear option, you can’t go wrong with the build quality of the Master & Dynamic MH40, which also offers a separate in-line microphone for better call quality. Like buds better? RHA offers a lot of bang for your buck and a best-in-class three-year warranty. If you want to split the difference between wired and wireless, the Scottish company’s T20 is the best compromise.
3) Come Back to Calendaring
If you allow the aforementioned inbox to dictate what’s urgent or are constantly reacting to real-time updates from collaboration apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams, they’re eventually going to crowd out what’s truly important. To regain control of your workday (and, arguably, your sanity), come back to your calendar to structure each workday in advance. There are several different ways to do this, depending on the type of job that you do. If you typically have a fairly stable schedule, then block off the final 30 minutes of each Friday afternoon to plot out the following week. Should you have a job in which the sands shift more regularly and unpredictably, then carve out 10 to 15 minutes each evening to reconcile your task or to-do list with distinct blocks of time on your calendar.
When possible, try to make each block unidirectional, so that you’re focusing on doing deep work on a single thing at any one time rather than flitting aimlessly between tasks, which might mean you’re not moving the needle on any of them. In their excellent book Peak Performance, Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg share the case study of polymath Dr. Bob Kocher, who somehow manages to be a practicing MD, a venture capitalist, and a Stanford University School of Medicine adjunct professor. His secret for keeping all these plates spinning without any crashing to the floor? “Do only one thing at a time.”
Of course, we all have those times when our jobs require us to take care of multiple small items rather than sinking our teeth into big, meaty projects. To take this into account, you can set aside time blocks for billing clients, chasing down unpaid invoices, scheduling calls, and checking other quick-hit tasks off your list. Rather than letting chaos reign, put these into priority order so that you’re still following Kocher’s example even when ploughing through a pile of minutiae.